Government News Analysis Trade

Moscow’s overtures to Manila

Philippine exposure to the vast markets of the Russian Federation is set to expand as relations between the two countries enter an era of close cooperation. From tourism to tuna to tropical fruits, Philippine products stand their best chance of gaining access to Russia’s 146.3 million people in the 40 years that have elapsed since the two countries first established diplomatic ties. And though trade will be a major factor in the new Russo-Philippines relationship, geopolitics and military cooperation will also be a component.

And here’s why. Manila and Moscow were on opposite sides throughout the Cold War. From the mid 1940s until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Philippines remained under the influence of the United States, its former landlord, and the Soviets’ arch foe. Although that period is now a part of history, US-Russia relations have continued to largely determine how the Philippines interacts with Russia. But that could now change.

First there are strong signs that President Rodrigo Duterte – a passionate defender of the Philippine Republic’s independence – wants to free his country from the near-claustrophobic influence of the US. A solution to the South China Sea islands dispute, for example, he believes will not be helped by US involvement. This is a discussion for Manila and Beijing and not with Washington pulling the strings or directing from the sidelines to promote its own stake in the region. The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement – signed by Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, two years ago – allowing American military personnel to operate from bases on Philippine soil until 2024, still sits uneasily with many Filipinos and Duterte has said that these arrangements need to be looked at again.

Meanwhile, in the background, Washington is endeavouring to rebalance its strategic interests, shifting emphasis from Europe and the Middle East to East Asia – US President Barack Obama’s much-vaunted “Pivot to Asia” – while at the same time, US-Russia relations sink to ever lower levels as the two countries butt heads across the map from Syria to the Ukraine.

All this provides the right climate for Moscow to court Manila. And it hasn’t been wasting any time in doing so. Just a week after Duterte was elected president, the Russian ambassador to the Philippines, Igor Khovaev, flew to Davao City for a private chat. He said later that the meeting had been very productive and that their discussions would jumpstart a better relationship between their countries.

They had agreed to pursue bilateral cooperation in a number of areas – among them trade, which, according to Russia’s envoy, would make progress before the end of the year. Tourism ties are also to be boosted. “It is time,” he said, “for Russians to discover the Philippines, and it is time for the Philippines to discover Russia”.

Khovaev talked about mangos and bananas and durian and the large Russian market that awaited them; but he also talked about military cooperation and the Philippines’ possible procurement of Russian military hardware, as well as information sharing to combat terrorism and a closer partnership in the war on terror.

Moscow’s interest in Southeast Asia is undeniable and Manila’s strong credentials as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the East Asia Summit, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation will look very attractive to the foreign-policy planners in Smolenskaya Square. As Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, has remarked: “The Philippines has a lot of potential as Russia’s partner in the Asia region”.

Politics aside, trade with the Russian Federation needs to be stepped up; last year Philippine exports to Russia totalled a meager US$268 million of which fruits accounted for just US$17 million. Russian imports, meanwhile amounted to US$323 million.

On the other hand, Russian tourists to the Philippines – 40,000 of them arrived last year – are growing by 6.5% annually. Russia and the Middle East are among the main new-market targets of the Department of Tourism (DOT). In June, the DOT announced that the Sela Group, one of Russia’s largest apparel retailers – 400 stores in 200 cities – has launched its “Inspired in the Philippines” T-shirt collection which promote Manila, Cebu, Bohol and Siargao.

The two countries certainly have plenty to build on. Since former president, Ferdinand Marcos, established diplomatic relations with what was then the USSR in 1976 – also formalising a Trade Cooperation Agreement – they have signed treaties covering everything from commerce to culture; education to aviation; travel visas to defence. The latest of these – a Philippine-Russia Joint Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation was sealed last November.

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